The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.


Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.

The Beguiled film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.

Mary Shelley (2017)

Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).


Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.

Mary Shelley film posterCREDITS
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.

The Neon Demon (2016)

There is no shortage of films that deal with the subject of the artificiality of Los Angeles (one of them even features this movie’s star Elle Fanning), or the nasty insidiousness attendant on the objectification of women within the creative industries (think Showgirls). And then there are films that go for a heightened atmosphere, with dialogue which would be almost risible were it not for the acting being pitched at such an icily aloof plateau, and the images being so artful and gorgeously composed that it all seems of a piece with the allegorical (perhaps Orphic) subject matter (frankly, Refn’s last film Only God Forgives went for that register too). Oh, and there are even horror films about vampiric sexuality (in a sense most vampire movies are about sex, though Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day was sort of working in a similar place).

Needless to say, I was thinking about lots of films while watching The Neon Demon, because it’s very much a film about making films — photographers do not come out at all well here and that’s surely a directorial self-critique. However, it works too as a further development of the lushly misanthropic style of Refn’s previous film, married to a throbbing Cliff Martinez electronic score that only further emphasises the strangeness of the many liminal, blank spaces the film sets itself in. By the end, Jena Malone’s make-up artist Ruby has more or less taken over the film from Fanning’s ingenue model Jesse, a narrative shift the film marks with a sort of Crowley-like magickal ritual transference involving much neon and mirrors (the demon of the title, one presumes), but then much of the film works more at an allegorical level (even Malick’s Knight of Cups seems naturalistic compared to this). It’s unsettling, certainly, not least for what it says about Refn’s view of women’s relationships with one another (there’s a disturbing lesbian/necrophiliac theme to emphasise this), but then everyone in this world is a parasite (not least the characters briefly essayed by Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks), and all sexuality is violent, it seems to posit.

I’m almost willing to talk myself out of liking it but for the sustained atmosphere and excellent performances — if heightened hyperstylised camp is your thing that is.

The Neon Demon (2016)CREDITS
Director Nicolas Winding Refn; Writers Refn, Polly Stenham and Mary Laws; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Soho Hotel, London, Wednesday 1 June 2016.

Somewhere (2010)

Even by the standards of Sofia Coppola’s films about ennui amongst the lives of the rich and overprivileged, Somewhere is a slow one, but that feels of a piece with its protagonist, movie star Johnny (Stephen Dorff). We open with him speeding around a race track, the camera unmoving as his car loops into and out of frame, repetitively, for several minutes. Other long takes show him sitting prone on his bed or a sofa, watching identical twins give him a pole dance in his Château Marmont hotel room where he’s living. It’s a carefully-delineated existence of perfect boredom, alleviated only by occasional desultory sex with pliable women, and drinks with his friend, all of this taking place again in his hotel room. It’s only when his young daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for a day, and then again for a longer period during which time they jet off to Milan for a press junket, that Johnny slowly starts to re-form emotional connections. Watching this painfully slow process unfolding, via almost impercetible changes in his mood and activities, is the core of Coppola’s film, beautifully shot by her regular DoP Harris Savides. It’s less accessible perhaps than Marie Antoinette before and The Bling Ring after, both dealing with similar themes, but it still has an almost hypnotic beauty to it that rewards attention.

Somewhere film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Harris Savides; Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015.

Maleficent (2014)

Disney’s output of late has focused on the way that bonds of family and friendship can be stronger and more meaningful than those between lovers, which is just as well for the Sleeping Beauty myth because it has always relied so heavily on non-consensual kissing that nowadays it sort of seems a bit creepy really (that scene is still here, but it’s played quite reasonably all things considered). Frozen dealt with Elsa and her sister the ice princess, while Maleficent instead focuses on Princess Aurora (our Beauty) and her relationship to the malevolent (or magnificent?) fairy of the film’s title, the one who curses her to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday at the outset.

In the way of such characters, Anjelina Jolie’s conflicted Maleficent runs away with the film; the blandly beaming Aurora (Elle Fanning) never stands a chance. The film’s turn, too, away from its twinkling, twee fairy-world vision of the start cannot come too soon — there’s only so much pastel-coloured paradisiacal nonsense that any viewer (well, this one, anyway) can take. As with Frozen, though, it’s just a pity that our eventual heroine, saviour of all our hearts, to whom all must pay obeisance, is so startlingly, blindlingly Aryan; there’s no questioning of beauty standards here, as even such silly frippery as Shrek managed years ago (a film series that very quickly outstayed its welcome, incidentally).

The central conflict in the film, expressed at the level of this relationship, is the division between the human and fairy worlds. (I might propose that, as the bearded bad guys are all Scottish while the elven fairies are English, this film is in fact a coded allegory about the dangers of a partition between Scotland and England, but then again maybe I’m just reading too much into it.) Certainly this central conflict between the autocratic humans and the ungoverned fairies isn’t really fully worked-through and seems to find benign aristocracy an acceptable compromise (perhaps the Scots just need to put more faith in the royal family?). It’s perplexing ideologically, and it’s perplexing tonally, but there’s enough here that’s enjoyable, particularly in Jolie’s star turn.

Maleficent film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Stromberg; Writer Linda Woolverton (based on the Disney film Sleeping Beauty); Cinematographer Dean Semler; Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Sunday 6 July 2014.